Thursday, September 27, 2018 07.01PM / By Dare Babarinsa / The GUARDIAN
Without the generosity of Kabiyesi, Oba Rilwanu Akiolu, the Oba of Lagos, I may not have gained entrance into the fertile mind of Jim Ovia, the founder and first chief executive of Zenith Bank. Baba Akiolu was kind enough to lend me a copy of Ovia’s Africa: Rise and Shine. The 224-page book is part autobiography and part inspirational book.
The kicker on the red cover proclaims: How a Nigerian Entrepreneur from Humble Beginnings Grew a Business to $16 billion.
Once you read it, it is not a book you will forget in a hurry.
Ovia lost his father at a young age and he was imbued by the strength of his mother whom he saw struggling to cope with the consequences of early widowhood.
He fell in love with the magic world of computers while he was a student in the United States.
After finishing his MBA from the University of Louisiana in Monroe in 1979, he travelled home to enrol in the National Youths Service Corps programme.
It was then he discovered the goldmine that is the Nigerian domestic economic environment.
After his NYSC, he got a job with the International Merchant Bank, IMB, a Nigerian subsidiary of First National Bank of Chicago.
He was employed in 1980 as a financial analyst on a salary of N7,500 per annum.
By the side, he was selling second-hand cars. He was an eager dreamer. That was how he waded into the water of Nigerian banking industry.
When General Ibrahim Babangida came with his Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, Ovia saw opportunities.
Having written many feasibility studies for other businesses, he wrote one for himself and went to town to sell his idea.
A commercial bank required an equity participation of N20 million. It was an impossible dream. He won. Zenith Bank was born.
One day many years later, the man who was once a salesman for second-hand cars was in his office at the Zenith Towers when his phone rang.
The chief executive of MTN, “Nigeria’s 800-pound gorilla of telecoms” was on the phone.
He wanted a deal. Ovia had become a major player in the Nigerian telecommunication market as the founder of Visafone into which he had invested $500 million.
In the highly competitive market of telecommunication, despite its huge cash infusion, Visafone remained a minor player.
“In the David and Goliath marketplace that had engulfed Nigerian telecoms, even my $500 million investment could leave Visafone a mere spectator in the industry amphitheatre,” he stated on page 158 of Africa Arise and Shine.
So the two big men met in Ovia’s Lagos home that night and a deal was struck.
Visafone was swallowed by MTN and Ovia got his handsome payment. The 2 million visafone subscribers were off-loaded into the MTN network. Ovia has since become a very influential member of the Nigerian billionaire club having access to power and influence beyond his primary constituency of banking.
His former colleague on the board of Zenith Bank, Godwin Emefiele, is now the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN. Udom Gabriel Emmanuel, the governor of Akwa Ibom State, was an executive director with Zenith Bank.
All these are to show the reach of Ovia, a businessman of immense capabilities and global influence. Ovia said he was motivated to write the book because of the impact of the June 2013 edition of Africa Forbes had on him.
He was on the cover and reading the story, he realised that he had come a long way from his childhood days in Agbor, Delta State.
Today, he had been able to build the Zenith brand as an international totem for African success. This was a bank that started in a modest apartment which it shared with some other tenants.
Today it owns branches on the five continents. It is also “the 800-pound gorilla” of the Nigerian banking industry.
Ovia has done well by writing this book for it opens a fascinating window to the world of big money and its modest beginnings.
It shows that even the mighty Niger has a source in the narrow crevices of the Futa Jalon Mountain.
Commenting on the book, Aliko Dangote, Nigeria’s foremost businessman and national icon stated: “Jim’s inspirational tale of success against all the odds is an important lesson of how adversity can always be surmounted.”
Many Nigerians leaders, either in politics or other sphere, do not find it necessary or easy to put their thoughts on paper.
Some of them are overwhelmed by procrastination or too confident that there would be another day, ensnared as it were, by the illusion of immortality.
Of all the 14 men who have been Nigerian Head of Government, only Chief Olusegun Obasanjo has written his autobiography.
I am sure some of the others, who are alive and in stable health, are working on their own.
With his book, Ovia has challenged his other colleagues to tell their own stories.
I was at the 80th birthday celebration in Lagos of iconic banker, Chief Joseph Sanusi, on Monday, September 24.
Sanusi was the only Nigerian banker I know who had the honour of being the managing director of both the UBA and First Bank before becoming the Governor of the Central Bank.
Fola Adeola, co-founder and pioneer managing director of GTBank, one of the guests at Sanusi’s celebration, said without Sanusi’s intervention, the GTBank would have remained a pipe-dream.
At the time when Adeola and his colleagues were trying to obtain a licence for the bank, Sanusi was the Deputy-Governor of the CBN.
At that time, the CBN had only one deputy governor. He said Sanusi is noted for thoroughness, dependability, integrity, courage and competence.
If the truth must be told both Sanusi and Adeola owe us their autobiographies. As shown by Ovia’s book, there are simply too many dramas untold.
It is not a fair deal if those who have been favoured by the Nigerian story refuse to share it. Posterity has a lot to learn from them.
You read Ovia’s book and you cannot but agree with John D Salinger, the author of The Catcher in the Rye who said, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
No nation can be great when it refuses to write its story.
What would be the story of the Jews without the Torah, the Arab without the Koran or the Hindus without the Bhagavad Gita?
What would be the essence of Yoruba spirituality and culture without the corpus of Ifa poetry known as Odu?
Our youths worship Goggle forgetting that all the information provided by Goggle is written by some people. There is no substitute to the human efforts.
I hope that Ovia would make his book available to the youths of Nigeria, especially those in the senior secondary schools and tertiary institutions.
As Ovia stated in The Prologue of the book, “It has been my wish for a long time that the young people of my home country of Nigeria – throughout Africa – can take advantage of the tremendous opportunities Africa has to offer.”
He added: “The path to success is accessible to every young African person, regardless of background, family income or education.”
The population of Africa and Nigeria is young and restless.
It would be a tragedy if the mind of the youth is left fallow or we allow it to become a refuse dump for irrelevant, even dangerous, ideas.
We can cope with the advancing Sahara Desert or the drying up of the Lake Chad.
But we would be in real peril if the future generation is also afflicted with the general aridity of intellect and knowledge.
About the Author
Dare Babarinsa, a leading Nigerian journalist, graduated from the University of Lagos in 1981; he was the Chief Correspondent of the Concord Group of Newspapers in Ondo State during the 1983 general elections. He was Associate Editor at the leading Nigerian news magazine News watch until 1990 when he joined four other journalists from the News watch stable to establish Tell magazine, Nigeria’s acclaimed foremost weekly news magazine; and where he served as Executive Director for fifteen years until his retirement in 2005. He was the Editor-in-Chief/MD of The Westerner news magazine until March 1, 2011. He is now the Chairman and Chief Executive of Gaskia Media Ltd, Lagos. He is also the Chairman of Negus Nigeria Ltd as well as Lekeleke Investment Ltd.
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